Exciting and enervating finishes have highlighted the proceedings over the years at the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard. The closing stretch at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge has produced fantastic finishes for the past three years, with Tiger Woods making birdies on the 72nd hole to win the 2008 and 2009 editions – for his fifth and sixth titles at Bay Hill – and Ernie Els grinding out a series of tough pars in 2010 to claim his second title in a stirring Monday finish that was among the most memorable conclusions of the year on the PGA TOUR.
“I think that had to be one of the most difficult finishes I’ve ever had to go through, but it was also one of the most satisfying because I had to bring the goods on those last few holes,” Els recalls. “I can look back on that finish and say I really did something.”
Whoever wins the 2011 edition of the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard is likely to have to really do something down the stretch, too. They’ll face one of the most accomplished fields in golf and they’ll be taking on the renovated Championship Course at Bay Hill, the 7,400-yard par-72 layout which has received across-the-board approval from tournament competitors after the changes made to it following the 2009 event.
Holes 15-18 at Bay Hill are sure to provoke intrigue with three of the most difficult on the course mixed in with the easiest but by no means without danger. Until last year the four holes all were difficult, with the 16th converted to a par-4. But Palmer changed it back to a par-5 that is reachable in two with a good drive, though players must hit their second shot over water on the 511-yard hole. It has ranked the easiest on the layout and provides opportunities for eagles and birdies.
“Everyone likes to see the players go for it and maybe be able to gain a few shots at that key moment in the tournament with a 3 or 4,” Palmer says. “It brings a lot of possibilities into play.”
As for holes 15, 17 and 18, over the last five years they are three of the four hardest at Bay Hill. The par-4 15th, which can play up to 480 yards with a new back tee, has ranked as the second most difficult the last five years. The narrow, dogleg right hole has played to a 4.244 stroke average, second only to the famed 458-yard par-4 finishing hole that has yielded a 4.260 scoring average since 2006. The 221-yard par-3 17th, which also plays over water, has been the fourth hardest with a 3.226 average. There are only seven water hazards on the course, but the last three holes all are made more perilous by the presence of the red-staked areas.
“You look at that finish and you just know there are a series of shots that you’re going to have to hit that have to be quality shots,” says Orlando resident Charles Howell III. “I like the changes to the golf course, but one of the best in my mind was changing 15 back to a par-5 to allow us to maybe get a shot or two back. I think that’s an exciting hole.”
“Every year, those last holes either make people or break them,” says 1990 champion Robert Gamez, who holed his second shot for eagle on the 72nd hole to beat Greg Norman, one of the most famous moments in the tournament’s proud history.
“It’s definitely one of the toughest finishes on the PGA TOUR,” Paul Goydos, who won the 1996 edition, says. “But the whole golf course is strong, and you have to say that the changes Arnold did only made it better and more challenging. He opened it up and gave us some room, and gave us some options to where it’s not all in the air. But it’s certainly not any easier. One of the great things about it is that there’s not a lot of mystery.”